Write Drunk. Edit Sober
If literary geniuses wrote drunk, why can’t we?
Written by Campbell Pratt
Heavy guitar and raspy, anguished crooning plays over my speakers. The lights are dimmed, setting the scene for a moody night of writing for my classes. The glass sitting on my desk is the last of the blanco tequila mixed with soda. I’m not worried about running out — there’s a collection of liquors on my bar cart. I’ll switch to something lighter once I hit two pages. The cursor blinks at me from a blank Word document.
When I don’t have anything important or interesting to say, I pour myself a drink. Sometimes it’s straight liquor. Most of these days I make cocktails. There’s something relaxing about the methodical process. It’s a physical act that grounds me before going into a mentally taxing writing process.
I considered going sober last summer after a particularly nasty bender, spurred on when I was working for another university and didn’t know anyone in the program. I seemed to spend most of my time reading and researching with a glass of whiskey. Or a vodka mixer. Or a shot of moonshine. Some of my coworkers did it, too. I didn’t think I had a problem. It was how we kept our anxiety low and our ideas fresh.
I don’t drink when I have to read half a novel in the span of the night or comb through research databases anymore. It’s only when the words won’t come to me. Something about drinking makes my words come out cleaner, more poetic. I’m better — more sure of my words, more settled with my ideas — when I drink. Editing the next day is the worst part, combing through typos in the main text and tangents I couldn’t work into the draft. In a misquote attributed to the esteemed Ernest Hemingway and abused by college students everywhere — “write drunk, edit sober.”
"Literary history is soaked in 105-proof bourbon."
Substance use isn’t unique to literary students and undergraduate writers. According to the 2022 National College Health Assessment, 71% of the surveyed undergraduate students reported alcohol use, and 38.5% of those students engaged in alcohol use on a weekly basis. Wei-Lei Chen and Jen-Hao Chen’s study, “College fields of study and substance use,” does not find an unusually high amount of substance use in humanities students compared to the student body at large.
That being said, the rhetoric surrounding substance use in literature studies is unique. Our current approach to our universally-respected works romanticizes the use and abuse of alcohol in its authors. We glamorize moody men pouring their dark hearts out over a rocks glass and a typewriter. While there have been efforts to rework which authors are considered “high literature” in academic spaces, the fixture of the tortured artist lives on. Literary history is soaked in 105-proof bourbon.
The festival of Dionysus, god of wine and debauchery, set the stage for the greatest writers and poets of Athens to present their works. The great tragedies by Aeschylus were first seen through the lens of heavy intoxication. Dionysus’s legacy bleeds into the editing, re-publications and consumption of the work itself. Richard Porson, prolific editor of classic tragedies and a poet himself during the 18th century, drank and used tobacco heavily, as reported by classicist Michael Atkinson.
Thomas De Quincey’s addiction came in waves. He used opium heavily while writing “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” in the early 19th century. He committed to small bouts of sobriety before falling back into the cycle of opium use. It feels important to include De Quincey, as he is one of the first major voices in addiction literature.
Edgar Allan Poe’s image as an author is of a disturbed mind, cold and distant: a symbol for the ultimate macabre. The father of the American Gothic relied on his own fear and alcohol consumption to pen the most notable short stories in the American literary canon.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, more often than not, feature rambunctious party scenes with cool socialites. Hedonism clouded his work in “The Beautiful and the Damned” and “This Side of Paradise.” While his work deconstructs the pomp and circumstance of the socialite lifestyle, Fitzgerald was notorious for his destructive behavior, dramatic interpersonal relationships and the social consequences of drinking his habits.
The author of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” Truman Capote’s drink of choice was whisky. He lived off of scandal, openly declaring himself an “alcoholic, drug addict, and homosexual.” Deemed extreme for the time period, he drank himself into a stupor and triggered hallucinations.
In the 1978 interview with The Paris Review, Joan Didion is interrogated about her writing process. Interestingly, she only began to drink during her first edits, as “the drink helps. It removes me from the pages.” A certain level of disassociation was needed to finish her work, to reach a point of completion she could find herself satisfied with.
This isn’t to say there aren’t, or never have been, great dry authors. Their pain isn’t sensational — it can’t be repurposed into fun slogans to sell on wine cups, or framed wall art to hang in your office.
Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” single-handedly changed working conditions for meat-packaging workers, all while discussing the horrors of the industrial revolution. Sinclair was a dry author, later writing the critically under-acclaimed “The Cup of Fury.” It details the lives of several authors and colleagues who fell into alcoholism during their creative processes.
I’m no Upton Sinclair, but I’ve done my best to capture the essence of the piece. Regardless, he wouldn’t approve of my methods.
Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is an exploration of love over gossip and drinks in the kitchen. After Carver made the choice to get sober, alcohol took a menacing role in his short stories. “Where I’m Calling From” and “Chef’s House” both follow alcoholics through their relapses. “Gravy,” one of Carver’s last poems, credits sobriety for the joy he experienced in the last decade of his life.
Stephen King is one of, if not the most, influential contemporary horror authors. His earlier works were fueled by alcohol, pills and the like. In 2022, he celebrated his 33rd year of sobriety. He hasn’t stopped writing yet, and doesn’t have any plans to stop.
Mild intoxication during the writing process doesn’t seem to be harmful in itself. Mathias Benedick’s “Creativity on tap? Effects of alcohol intoxication on creative cognition” is an attempt to measure the effects of substance use on creativity. To break down the science jargon, the answer is “maybe.” Benedick’s results are “sparse and inconsistent.” He leans towards the conclusion that the drunk author is trading their ability to creatively problem-solve for novelty and spontaneity. The prose would be fresh, but the drunk author risks inconsistency and gaps in logic. If drinking doesn’t make your writing better or worse, why do we do it? Why is that our crutch?
"Drinking helps me not think about it. I can write on that blank document, focusing on the words, rather than what happens after and the implications it has on me as the author."
Sometimes I need to distance myself from my writing. I can’t swallow the pieces of myself showing up in my work. Or maybe I don’t want anyone seeing it, because I can’t control what they think of me after. Vulnerability hasn’t been my strong suit. Drinking helps me not think about it. I can write on that blank document, focusing on the words, rather than what happens after and the implications it has on me as the author.
If the hallowed halls of the literary canon can write drunk, I thought I should, too. I don’t know if I think that anymore. I thought they were great when they were drunk, but it doesn’t make me feel any better writing with a glass in my hand. Maybe they were great outside of their problems. Maybe they were just complicated people, and we make them into something bigger than any one person can really be.
There’s a saying that’s been floating around. It was first attributed to Fitzgerald in a 1970s novel, but that doesn’t seem to have any historical backing. King borrowed the phrase in his 2013 novel, “Dr. Sleep.” Dan Torrance commiserates with the bartender, saying on his own alcoholism, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
Before writing this article, I said drinking helps me get the work done. But does it help? It’s the same mind, the same pen. Even the science says there’s not a clear quality difference when drinking and writing, or waxing poetry sober. Drinking lowers my inhibitions, makes me more vulnerable and spontaneous, but it doesn’t change the core of who I am. You’re the same person, no matter how you change from moment to moment.
When it comes down to the gritty details of my working habits, I drink to numb an internal monologue of “Am I good enough?” and “Am I wasting everyone’s time?” The drink takes me away from myself, lets me ease into a rhythm of work without the buzzing of self-doubt and existential dread. For me, drinking isn’t the source of the problem. Ruminating in insecurities and feeding into the fear of not being enough is.
When I’m sober, the thoughts follow me from lecture halls, to essays, to articles. The insecurity, the fear, the dread, the self-loathing — it doesn’t go away. Sometimes I feel like the protagonist of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Instead of a heartbeat under my floorboard, it’s the steady rhythm of my own doubt. I drown it out with heavy music and liquor, but I can’t do it every other night. Something’s got to give.
It feels anti-climactic to spend this many words talking about the problem of drinking in academia and not offer solutions, but I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how to make you better. I barely know how to make myself better. I do know that this is unsustainable. I deserve better for myself, and you do, too. Emulating dead men who drank themselves into stupors and burned bridges for the sake of art isn’t the way to live. Choosing to perpetuate pain onto yourself, onto others, to ignore your own, won’t make anyone a better writer, a better academic, a better person.
If you feel like this article hit too close to home, sit down with your feelings. It won’t be fun, but knowing how you feel is more important than anything else. Productivity shouldn’t come at the cost of your health. The shame and the negative self-talk won’t go away if the only time you acknowledge the problem is when you’re engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms.
When it comes to personal choice, there’s no right or wrong. It all comes down to what you need. If you can drink and write, you can. This is not a mass call for sobriety in academia. This is examining my choices, my justification for those choices, and hoping you do the same.
I don’t crave drunken rushes and benders just to have a story after. I don’t want excitement, hedonism, or glory. When it comes down to it, I want peace and simplicity. I want to show somebody my work and not wince when I watch them read it. I want to feel like I’m enough. I want to feel safe with myself. I want to be content. I don’t want to be Capote, I want to be Carver.